At least once a month, I receive some kind of angry email (or perhaps see comments on Facebook) from someone who is upset about mainstream press coverage of President Barack Obama that identifies him as a Christian.
Very few of these notes come from people who think Obama is a closet Muslim. Mostly, they come from doctrinally conservative Christians whose churches clash with the Obama White House on moral and cultural issues, most of them having to do with the Sexual Revolution. What they are saying, of course, is, "Obama isn't one of us." His actions show that.
Of course he isn't one of them. But it's perfectly accurate for journalists to note that the president has made a profession of faith (numerous times) as a liberal mainline Protestant. He walked the aisle and joined a congregation in the United Church of Christ, the bleeding edge of the liberal Protestant world, and has, functionally, been an Episcopalian while in the White House. Before becoming president he was quite candid about the details of his faith (the essential interview here). Obama has a liberal Christian voice.
This, of course, brings us to the God-and-politics story de jour right now -- the online interview in which Dr. James Dobson, once the creator of the Focus on the Family operation, says that he knows the person who recently led Donald Trump to born-again faith.
You can imagine the Twitter-verse reaction to this news, coming so soon after that closed-door New York City meeting between Trump and about 1,000 selected evangelical leaders. Here is the crucial material from The New York Times, which, as you can imagine, opened with a question lede. Then:
In an interview recorded ... by a Pennsylvania pastor, the Rev. Michael Anthony, Dr. Dobson said he knew the person who had led Mr. Trump to Christ, though he did not name him.
“I don’t know when it was, but it has not been long,” Dr. Dobson said. “I believe he really made a commitment, but he’s a baby Christian.”
Mr. Anthony posted the interview to his blog on Friday. Dr. Dobson could not be reached on Saturday, and Hope Hicks, the Trump campaign spokeswoman, did not respond Saturday to a request for details.
Mr. Trump stumbled at times last year when speaking about faith. At one point he said that he had never asked for God’s forgiveness. And after repeating on the campaign trail that the Bible was his favorite book, ahead of his own “Art of the Deal,” Mr. Trump declined to name a favorite verse. “The Bible means a lot to me, but I don’t want to get into specifics,” he told Bloomberg Television. ...
During the New York meeting, Mr. Trump made no mention of being born again. It is a possibility certain to cause chortles in some corners, but it could also open doors in others for the thrice-married presumptive Republican nominee for president.
The coverage is actually pretty restrained, other than that word "chortles." Offered the space to do so, I would have found it hard to resist pulling out some typically blunt Trump quotes from the Playboy interviews in his past. (Click here for my "On Religion" column last week, written before the Dobson quotes hit the internet.)
Would the Playboy interviews have been fair game? Of course. Would that be the whole story? Of course not.
The problem is that it's hard to turn a spiritual event into a political press release.
Now, the Times team assumes -- accurately, I am sure -- that many readers would not know what "accepting Christ" means, in an evangelical context. That means that the great Gray Lady needs to explain that term.
For evangelicals, “accepting Christ” is at the heart of becoming a genuine Christian, and refers to acknowledging sin and declaring the need for Jesus Christ as savior.
“The expectation evangelicals have is of a radical change, a 180-degree turn from the life of sin to following Christ,” said Kedron Bardwell, a political science professor at Simpson College in Iowa, who is the son of an evangelical pastor.
With new believers, this is often done in prayer with another Christian, which may have been what Dr. Dobson was referring to when he said that he knew the person who had “led him to Christ.”
Of course, that is one way that a conversion experience can take place. You can only imagine the media attention if Trump had, let's say, walked the aisle and made a profession of faith at First Baptist Church in Dallas or at an evangelical Presbyterian megachurch somewhere in America.
The key is that we are talking about an event that would have been very private and very personal. In other words, the perfect event to allow believers to cheer and doubters to scoff. In some cases, critics are responding in language that sounds very familiar to me, after reading hundreds of anti-Obama epistles from conservatives.
So what now? What do journalists do, other than "chortle," if the religious press continues to run with this story?
Journalists cannot cover that did or did not happen in a person's mind and heart. However, there are journalistic questions that can be asked.
Remember these? They are the questions that I created, long ago, for students at Denver Seminary to ask about the lives of the people in their pews. The goal was to look for signs of their personal priorities, when facing daily life.
* How do you spend your time?
* How do you spend your money?
* How do you make your decisions? (Who or what influences you, in terms of leadership, books, media, etc.?)
I have also, in the past, suggested that looking for factual answers to these questions is a good way to deal with, oh, professional athletes who play the God card when trying to bounce back from personal problems. One a more serious note, I would assume that government investigators are currently asking factual questions such as these about the daily life of Omar Mateen.
The questions are valid. They are the kinds of questions that journalists get to ask -- whether one is dealing with Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
It is perfectly fair game to look for facts, when someone claims that a faith decision has changed the direction of his or her life. It is not, however, possible to read the person's mind.
Ultimately, what happened here is between Trump and God. People have every right to be skeptical and look for facts that point to some kind of change in his life. What we need here are honest questions, not insults.